What’s a Spanish Mustang? Depending on who you ask, be prepared for a bewildering array of answers. You’ll find evidence of this mysterious horse scattered throughout the western United States and beyond. Dig deeper and you’ll learn of the Spanish Barb, Choctaw, Sorraia, Sulphur, Belsky and Pryor Mountain herds. You may hear of related strains like the Kiger in the Northwest and the Nokota of the Northern Plains. It will quickly become clear that a single description is difficult to find.
It is said that victors write the history. This cliché may account for why the Spanish Mustang labors in obscurity. Many other breeds – from the Morgan and American Saddlebred to the Quarter Horse – lay some claim to the title of “America’s First”. But resounding evidence points to none other than this small Spanish style equine as North America’s first horse. Enter John Stephen Hockensmith, Kentucky gentleman, internationally acclaimed photographer/author and poet-at-heart. He set out to solve this riddle in his new book, Spanish Mustangs in the Great American West – Return of the Horse.
“After the popularity of my first book, people kept asking me what was next.” John says. “Ironically, it was a European lady living in the States who suggested the Spanish Mustang. Once I started investigating, I realized this was an important story.”
John’s narrative begins 500 years ago with the arrival of Columbus and the early explorations of the Spanish Conquistadors. He plots their every point of entry into the New World and explains the Spanish and Barb origins of their horses. These iron-tough survivors of brutal ocean voyages were the foundation stock of North America’s horse. “The breadth of the research was greater than any other project I have worked on.” says John. His story continues as the horse of the Conquistadors profoundly transforms the culture of the Native Americans. He relates how this incomparably tough Spanish horse continues to spread with overwhelming dominance.
“Cowboys and Indians”
The next chapter in the chronicle of this horse is etched on our collective consciousness and steeped in romance and myth – it’s the epic battle of “Cowboys versus Indians”. This period of history may be the key to the continuing obscurity of the Spanish Mustang, which during this era was commonly coined “The Indian Pony” – the tough and determined horse that ran rings around the best Cavalry mounts.
John details the deep-seated fear and prejudice evoked by the Indian pony. “When they saw a ‘savage’ mounted on a swift and spirited horse, the settlers felt an instinctive chord of fear struck deep within them,” he writes. “They knew the Native American astride his tireless horse could not be easily contained. Thus, the sight of Indians evoked fear and loathing, emotions that were enflamed by often violent conflicts between marauding natives and invading settlers. Blinded by this dread, most settlers believed that all things Indian were wholly untamed, even subhuman, and therefore should be eliminated.”
As the onslaught of settlers spread west, these horses were marked for eradication by outright slaughter or dilution through cross-breeding. The elimination of the peerless Indian pony was believed essential to ultimately quelling Native American tribes and conquering the land. Pressured by man, nature and a changing landscape, the Spanish Mustang began disappearing at an alarming rate.
The Spanish Mustang today
While a few Spanish types remain in the wild today, most are now in the hands of preservation breeders scattered throughout the country. “An important distinction in my book is separating the Spanish Mustang from today’s mustangs managed by the BLM [Bureau of Land Management],” John says. “While the mustangs running wild today capture our imagination and deserve our protection, they are, for the most part, far removed from their Spanish origins.” Even in current times, the BLM maintains a long-standing policy of releasing domestic horses into the herds to “improve” the native stock.
What the future holds
John’s work has shone a bright light on the Spanish Mustang – America’s forgotten treasure. Ironically, the greatest interest in these horses comes from Europeans, who are fueled by their growing fascination of American breeds and disciplines. “Many Europeans I’ve spoken with find the history of our wild horses fascinating,” writes John. “In Europe, breeding programs are centuries old and carefully regulated. There is no comparable experience of horses selected by nature like there is here in North America.”
The 2010 World Equestrian Games will be held in John’s home state of Kentucky. It’s the first time the highly prestigious event will take place North America. Hopefully, visitors from overseas will have an opportunity to be introduced to America’s first horse. And perhaps the Spanish Mustang will finally be recognized at home too, for the historically important equine that he is.
Margaret Odgers of Crazy Horse Farm in Paris, Kentucky, is involved in the preservation of the Nokota and Colonial Spanish Horses. Her blue roan Nokota gelding, Blue Moon Rising (Moonshine), is a great ambassador for his breed, participating in breed exhibitions and representing the Nokota breed at the Kentucky Horse Park in their Parade of Breeds. He was recently joined by their Colonial Spanish gelding, Billy Jack. www.crazyhorsefarm.com